Armed with a typewriter and briefcase, Agnes Smedley jumped ship at Danzig in late December of 1920. Held up at customs because she had no passport and no visa, she telegrammed Virendranath Chattopadhyaya of the Berlin Indian Revolutionary Committee. The committee promptly contacted the German Foreign Office, which interceded with customs officials at Danzig and eased Smedley's way to Berlin.
For at least a decade, Berlin had been the vortex of the European Indian nationalist movement. During World War I, the Berlin committee had worked closely with the German Foreign Office on insurrectionary plots to overthrow the British in India. In the confusion of the postwar period, the committee retained a semblance of German protection. But as its financial backing was drying up, it was forced to consider adopting a new strategy more oriented toward Soviet Russia and the anti-imperialist position of Lenin.
Smedley's reputation as a successful organizer and propagandist had preceded her, and she was accepted immediately as a key member on the Berlin team of nationalists. Personally, however, she was feeling lonely and vulnerable. On January 17, only a week after her arrival in Berlin, she wrote to Florence Lennon:
Here I am isolated, because I do not speak German. I am studying, and can say Ich habe einen hund, etc... Brilliant progress after a week! I can fight but can not learn the »furren« language spoken by the »natives.«
I am mentally isolated. I subscribed to the Call, leaving a money order for $5.00 for Das before I left... Kindly keep my presence here absolutely quiet. I am here illegally and the German authorities fear disagreements with the land of the free. I fear I shall have to keep moving and write under the name I have given you [Alice Bird]. I have thought a lot of you since I left. Your love and eternal consideration all return to me now that you are not here. I think you are the only person whom I have ever known who tolerated my many faults and eccentricities. You are the only one who really understood. And I have marked Rabir's poem with you in mind in which he says: »Listen to me friend, he understands who loves.«
Loneliness led her into an affair with Virendranath Chattopadhyaya, the seasoned Bengali nationalist who led the Berlin committee, and a remarkable man by any reckoning.* Chatto, as he was known to all, was more than twelve years older than Smedley. Her attraction to him may well have been like her attraction in 1917 to the veteran Punjabi nationalist Lajpat Rai.
- * Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (1880-1941), the eldest son of a scholarly Brahmin Bengali family, was a legendary father figure to young Indian nationalists arriving in Europe as students in the 1920s. Although a Bengali and a Hindu, he grew up in Hyderabad in southcentral India. His father, Agonerath Chattopadhyaya, was one of the earliest Western-educated Indians and the principal of a college in Hyderabad. He was also a pioneering nationalist in the Hyderabad area and was finally forced by the British authorities into early retirement and a kind of house arrest in exile in Calcutta, where he died around the turn of the century. His children were all remarkable and fervent nationalists. The oldest of Chatto's younger sisters, Sarojini Naidu, was and is the best known. She was a poetess and politician who became a leading figure in the Indian National Congress from the 1900s until her death in the 1950s, when she was governor of West Bengal. A younger brother, Hirendranath, was still alive in 1980 and active as a poet, actor, playwright, and movie director.
Having received a classical education in Hyderabad, Chatto left India in 1901 for Great Britain. After failing the Indian Civil Service examination (the quota for Indians then was extremely small), he took up legal studies and married an Englishwoman. By 1907 he had become a major activist in London's embryonic Indian nationalist movement, an editor of the journal Indian Sociologist, and a contact man for national revolutionary groups in Ireland, Egypt, Poland, and Paris. His legal studies ended in 1909, when he was expelled from school because of his political activities. In 1910 Chatto left his wife and moved to Paris to escape arrest. There he joined the French Socialist Party and, with Madame Cama, the veteran propagandist for Indian independence, he edited and wrote for Bandemataram as well as a new journal, Talwar, and contributed articles on Indian subjects for the French press, especially the Socialist paper L'Humanite. As before, he worked hard to establish links between the Indian independence movement and other anti-imperialist movements, such as the one in Egypt. In 1912 Chatto, now divorced, apparently gave up political activities and entered into a stormy marriage with a wealthy Irishwoman. The coming of World War I reawakened him politically. In April, 1914, anticipating arrest by the French, who were now allied with the British, he headed for Berlin. Chatto and the comrades he gathered around him saw the war as a golden opportunity to strike a blow against the British lion in India: Britain's enemy was India's friend. They seemed little concerned about the consequences of collaborating with another equally racist and imperialistic European power and unaware that such collaboration was unpopular with their countrymen in India. In August, 1914, Chatto met for the first time with German Foreign Office officials in Berlin. Within a week a document was worked out by which the Germans agreed to provide necessary aid for propaganda work and for sending arms and men to India. The United States was to be the staging ground, and emissaries were dispatched to Indian communities around the world. By the end of 1914, the Indo-German conspiracy was well underway, with Chatto as its coordinator and head of Berlin's Independence Committee. Chatto was also effectively single again; his Irish wife had retreated to a nunnery. The Indo-German conspiracy failed miserably: Britain stopped the shipment of arms and, in 1915 and 1916, arrested and executed many of the insurgents. By the end of World War I Chatto was still in Berlin, looking for a new ally in his war with Britain; by 1920 the Soviet Union was the likeliest candidate. Sources on Chattopadhyaya and his family include M. P. Sarangapani, »Mrs. Sarojini Naidu,« Modern Review 39, no. 1 (January 1926): 99—107; J. C. Kerr (of British intelligence), Political Trouble in India, 1907-1917 (Delhi, 1973 reprint), pp. 198-214; A. C. Bose, Indian Revolutionaries Abroad (Patna, 1971), pp. 13—36; Padmini Sen Gupta, Sarojini Naidu: A Biography (Bombay, 1966); Bombay Government Records, Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement in India, vol. 2 (London, 1920), pp. 499-518; G. Adhikari, ed., Documents of the History of the Communist Party of India (New Delhi, 1971), vol. 1, pp. 79-84; Chinmohan Sehanavis, »Pioneers among Indian Revolutionaries in Germany,« Mainstream 13, no. 46 (July 19, 1975): 11-14.
Chatto, however, was not so fatherly in his treatment of her. Their relationship deepened rapidly, and within a month or two they were living together and calling themselves man and wife. Writing twenty years later, in Battle Hymn of China, Smedley recalled:
Virendranath was the epitome of the secret Indian revolutionary movement, and perhaps its most brilliant protagonist abroad. He was nearly twenty [sic] years my senior, with a mind as sharp and ruthless as a saber. He was thin and dark, with a mass of black hair turning grey at the temples, and a face that had something fierce about it. He might easily have been taken for a southern European, a Turk, or a Persian. To me he seemed something like thunder, lightning, and rain; and wherever he had sojourned in Europe or England, he had been just about that to the British. His hatred for the islanders who had subjugated his country knew no bounds.
The foundation of his emotional life had been laid in the feudal Mohammedan state of Hyderabad. To this he had added a quarter of a century of intellectual training in England, Europe, and the Near East. His was a famous Brahmin family abounding in poets, singers, educators, and scientists. Viren had been educated by his father, by Moslem scholars and English tutors. He grew up speaking Hindustani, English, a smattering of German, and the court language of the Moslem world, Persian. Throughout his childhood he had heard his mother—a poetess and an advocate of the emancipation of women—referred to with contempt by Moslems, and this had generated in him emotions which he had never been able to reconcile. This was only one of the many conflicts that went on within him and made his mind and emotional life remind me of one of those Hindu temples in south India— a repository of all the cultural movements of the ages.
When Viren and I began life together, two eras and two cultures met. I was an American working woman, the product of a distorted commercial civilization, he a high-caste Indian with a cultivated, labyrinthine Brahmin mind and a British classical education. Though he hated everything British, he had an even deeper contempt for an American capitalism which judged all things by their money value. His mind was modern, but his emotional roots were in Hinduism and Islam.
Whether or not I loved him I do not really know. Many years after I had left Viren I remember writing to an American friend that to my astonishment and resentment Viren remained the center of my emotional life, and if he were in danger I suppose I would walk barefoot around the world to help him. Yet I would not live with him for a day. That was long ago and time again proved the great healer. That he loved me there is no doubt. Neither I nor others understood why.
Smedley's »marriage« soon started to fall apart. The major causes of tension were political, but they were also rooted in personal jealousies within the Indian movement—which was almost entirely male—and in the kind of furtive underground life that she and Chatto were forced to lead as revolutionaries in exile. The troubles began in late March of 1921, when she joined a delegation of fourteen, led by Chatto, on a trip to Moscow to discuss the direction of the Indian nationalist movement with other Indians and Comintern figures. The delegation set out in high spirits, but as soon as they arrived at the Moscow railroad station they were confronted by M. N. Roy and Abani Mukerjee, the leaders of the rival group that had just founded the Communist Party of India in Tashkent. The two groups clashed immediately over policy. By the time the special commission of the Comintern established to discuss the future of the Indian nationalist movement began its meetings, their differences had become irreconcilable.
The substantive issue dividing the two groups was one of priorities: which was to come first: the anti-British struggle, or Socialist revolution in India? Chatto and Smedley called for the organization of a united front of anti-imperialist groups, Communist and non-Communist, in the struggle against the British in India. Chatto, Smedley, and the others from Berlin were not Communists or Comintern members. They wanted national independence for India, and they were willing to seek it through a united effort with others. Roy, however, argued eloquently against such a united front and in favor of leadership being placed firmly in the hands of his embryonic Communist Party of India. He emphasized organizing the Indian proletariat in order to ensure the Socialist direction of the movement. Roy's faction eventually won the day.
The struggle between the two camps soon became more personal than issue-oriented. As a non-Indian and a woman, Smedley was highly vulnerable, and from the beginning she became a chief target for attack. Roy, whom Smedley had met in New York in 1917, accused her of immorality—of being an »evil temptress« who was stirring up opposition to him and probably working as a spy for the British. Roy's real target, of course, was Chatto, whom he wished to discredit in the eyes of his followers. Smedley was furious and fought back. She accused the chairman of the Comintern commission investigating the Indian question, James Bell, who was British and siding with Roy, of being a British spy. She raged to Florence on October 3, »The Indians opposing our plan did such dirty work as to call me a British spy! Think of it—not even an American spy—but a British one!!! So I was under investigation!... If I had not been a member of a large delegation I suppose I would have been locked up.«
Chatto's Berlin delegation spent much of its time waiting: waiting for the special commission of the Comintern to convene, and waiting to meet Lenin, which they never did, being effectively blocked by Roy.* As a result, Smedley spent much of her time at the Lux Hotel mixing with guests, most of whom were delegates from around the world who were gathering for the July meeting of the Third Congress of the Comintern (which Smedley did not attend). She summarized her impressions in an article for a New York Socialist journal, The Liberator (published in October, 1921). She was impressed by the gulf between the Western and Asian revolutionaries, and her sympathies were strongly with the Asians. Most reprehensible to her were the British Communists, whose views on Asian questions she considered imperialist. But she described all the Western delegates, especially the Americans, as naive and unrepresentative. In her letter to Florence of October 3, for example, she had this to say about the American delegates Ella Reeve Bloor and Earl Browder:
In Moscow, amid great poverty, she (Mother Bloor) wore lace dresses over silk colored slips; also long strings of colored beads, rings, etc... And she lived with an idiot, Earl Browder, a young, dainty man of some 25 or 26 who bought (and wore) baby-blue silk Russian smocks in the market; and long black silk ribbons which he wore as belts. And then he, with his baby white skin and fair toothbrush moustache, posed in Moscow as the delegate from the Kansas miners! So help me gawd!! It was awful! I was so disgusted I couldn't even protest. I hate female men above all. And then to have them say they represent miners when I know they haven't been within a thousand miles of a mine. And Mother Bloor posed as the representative of five or six organizations, from the far West to Massachusetts!
- * M. N. Roy had already impressed Lenin with the famous counterthesis on colonialism that he presented at the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920; and before Chatto's delegation arrived in Berlin, he was also on good personal terms with such other leading Comintern figures as K. Radek, M. Borodin, N. Bukharin, A. Thalheimer, and J. Bell. Thus he was easily able to prevent Chatto's group from meeting Lenin and to cut off any chance of their gaining direct Comintern support. Roy's brief prominence in Comintern politics has led most Western writers to infer that he was the most influential leader of the Indian nationalist movement in European exile. In fact, the memoirs of Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Zakir Hussain, Sarojini Naidu, and Rabinandrath Tagore leave little doubt that during the 1920s it was Chatto who was the most widely respected Indian nationalist living in Europe. Roy was known as an arrogant man, very difficult to work with; when he was in Europe, he worked in relative isolation from the rest of the Indian community. Chatto, on the other hand, had connections and friends all over Europe, as well as a legendary reputation and a host of important family connections in India. By 1928 Roy had fallen out with the Comintern and been expelled from the Communist Party of India. Thus contemporary communist scholars in India consider Chatto (who joined the party in 1928), and not Roy, to be the central figure in the early decades of their movement. See, for example, Adhikari, ed., Documents, vol. 1, pp. 79-84, and Sehanavis, »Pioneers among Indian Revolutionaries in Germany.«
Smedley was also disillusioned by the political climate in the Soviet Union, and she bitterly condemned the authoritarianism and irrationality of the new state. The Moscow house arrest of two of her heroes, the anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, shocked her deeply, and she made a point of going to visit them with Chatto. Late in 1921 (the letter is undated) she wrote to Florence in New York:
Much that we read of Russia is imagination and desire only. And no person is safe from intrigues and the danger of prison. The prisons are jammed with anarchists and syndicalists who fought in the revolution. Emma Goldman and Berkman are out only because of their international reputations. And they are under house arrest; they expect to go to prison any day, and may be there now for all I know. Any Communist who excuses such things is a scoundrel and a blaggard. Yet they do excuse it — and defend it... If I'm not expelled or locked up or something, I'll raise a small-sized hell. Everybody calls everybody a spy, secretly, in Russia, and everybody is under surveillance. You never feel safe.
She was also distressed, she said, by the misery and poverty of the ordinary people in Russia, particularly the gangs of homeless urchins she saw wandering the streets of Moscow: »People have reached the lowest level possible for human beings; beyond this stage they will die or return to the animal stage.«
Emma Goldman appreciated Smedley's visit and the courage she displayed in doing so. It was the beginning of a friendship that helped to sustain Smedley through the next decade. In her autobiography, Living My Life, Goldman recalled her first impressions: »She was a striking girl, an earnest and true rebel, who seemed to have no interest in life except the cause of the oppressed people in India. Chatto was intellectual and witty, but he impressed me as a somewhat crafty individual. He called himself an anarchist, though it was evident that it was Hindu nationalism to which he devoted himself entirely« (p. 905).
Soon after Smedley and Chatto returned to Berlin, the German government, under pressure from Britain, began proceedings to deport both of them. Before this effort was abandoned, they were forced to live illegally in the city for several months, which meant moving frequently from hotel to hotel and house to house in order to escape police raids. It also meant constant surveillance and harassment by British secret service agents. On one occasion, British agents drugged and kidnapped Chatto; he was saved only by an alert border guard during an automobile search. When not on the run, Smedley, Chatto, and the others manned a new Indian News and Information Bureau, through which they hoped to step up their propaganda and organizational work for Indian independence. To start the bureau, they raised money by selling the furniture of Chatto's old wartime Berlin committee. Politically as well as financially, their situation was as difficult as it had been in Moscow. Smedley's troubles were compounded by the appearance in Berlin of Herambalal Gupta, the man who had forcibly engaged in sex with her just before her arrest in New York in 1918. The two clashed initially at a meeting of the Berlin committee of nationalists just after her return to Berlin from Moscow. As Smedley recalled the scene in Daughter of Earth (she changed the names as follows: Gupta to Juan Diaz, Chatto to Anand, and Smedley to Marie Rogers):
To the eyes of the other men present, it was an impersonal thing; to Juan Diaz and me it was not. Back of each word uttered by him lay a cynicism and a threat that was hateful. Once I caught Anand's eyes travelling from him to me, questioningly, and something within me quivered. He would find out— he was subtle enough to find out anything!
»I am opposed to point four advanced here,« I said, rising and speaking against a resolution advanced by Juan Diaz. Anand, listening, followed and supported my objections. When he had finished Juan Diaz sprang to his feet.
»I object to foreigners influencing our movement. Not only am I opposed to foreigners, but I object to women and to wives influencing our members.«
I was on my feet livid with rage. »Foreigners! You do not object to foreigners who help save the lives of your men! Wives! Don't you insult me, Juan Diaz! I am not here as a wife, but as a comrade and a co-worker, and I demand to be treated as such!«
Anand was also angry: »We speak of no wives here, Comrade Diaz; nor foreigners. I have been in our movement for years, and this is the first time any one has had the unmitigated audacity to suggest that I cannot think for myself. I oppose resolution four, as do other comrades here who are not married to Comrade Rogers. Unless you, Diaz, apologize for this insult, I withdraw from the conference. I make this demand not as a husband, but as a revolutionary.«
Gupta refused to apologize, and after the meeting broke up he spread the rumor that Smedley had had sexual relations with him. Within a matter of months, the resulting furor led Smedley to a nervous breakdown: in November she collapsed and entered a hospital for a month. For support, she reached back to her network of women friends in New York. In two letters to Florence Lennon (one undated, the other dated June 1, 1922), she wrote:
The Indian work has completely ruined my health. Here it is a thousand times harder than in the U.S. Here I have no associates and no intellectual companionship such as in New York. The Indian work and my illness have prevented my learning German or anything else. The Indians here harbor harsh prejudices against women and against foreigners. As usual, they are inefficient in work and jealous of efficient persons...
There is a dirty man here who has gossiped without any foundation and it seems that every note I write to America is read by many people. I know the deep and sincere friendship of [Das] and I have a similar impersonal friendship to offer in return. But there are Indians who make it their business to gossip and make my life miserable... I request that you burn all my letters after you have read them. There are men here to make it their business to collect »news« from American fellows and then to pervert it and circulate it broadcast. There is no way of meeting a half lie or rumor.
Smedley's problems were not simply personal. She was deeply depressed by conditions in Germany. Crowds of men and women with grim faces and angry eyes stood in the cold wind for hours waiting their turn to buy a bit of bread or fat or potatoes. Newspaper stories and headlines announced an alarming increase in suicides. Every church in Berlin, she said, seemed to hold a funeral a day. On December 31,1921, she sent Florence a long letter describing her reactions:
Germany is in terrible condition this year. This is particularly true of the working masses, who are so undernourished that tuberculosis is having a rich harvest, particularly of adolescent children. Gambling in the mark has been the great indoor sport of the capitalists for months, and consequently food has increased by 25 to 100 per cent. I have lived in the homes of workers; they live on boiled potatoes, black bread with lard spread on it instead of butter, and rotten beer. In one hotel, the maid who built the fire fainted in our room. Exhaustion was the cause. We talked with her later and learned that she worked 17 hours a day and makes 95 marks a month—about 50 cents. She lives in the hotel, sleeping in one room with all the other maids—a tiny, dirty little place. They receive their food also — clothing they buy themselves — out of the 95 marks a month! This means they all become prostitutes and haunt the streets whenever they have time. Or they pick up »clients« in the hotel.
Of course, with Germany economically helpless, England has her own sweet way politically. It is very terrible to see the once independent Germany bending to every whim of England, or growing hopeful and happy everytime Lloyd George utters a word or a hint in favor of Germany against France.
There are prominent Germans here who say they wonder how long it will be until anti-English propaganda of any sort, whether carried on by Germans or by foreigners, will be forbidden...
All hopes of a revolution are dwindling, and the German working class seems to be entering that phase of »India-ization« which leads to physical and intellectual slavery. For months it seemed that a revolution was certain. But instead, slavery seems more likely now. The working class no longer has the physical resistance for a revolution, and the Entente is too strong, and Russia is too weak. More and more do I see that only a successful revolution in India can break England's back forever and free Europe itself. It is not a national question concerning India any longer; it is purely international...
When we returned to Germany, [Chatto] was ordered by the German Government to leave this country. The British Government demanded this of the German Government. Consequently, we have been living illegally for months—since September. Our house was raided by the honorable police, and then for weeks we lived from hotel to hotel, and from house to house, never knowing where to go from one night to the next. Generally we were working in our Bureau up until midnight, and then we would go out and find a cheap hotel. After weeks of this I gave out and collapsed, due to rheumatism of the heart. Then I came out of the hospital after a month. We were followed night and day by British spies, and by the help of friends tried to get hold of them and have them arrested for illegal police activities. My husband received warnings time and again to be careful. Then about two weeks ago a terrible thing happened to him: we drank chocolate in an Islamic restaurant with some friends, and within a short time he lay unconscious on the floor; diarrhea and vomiting started as soon as he came to. The physician we consulted said he had been given arsenic, and a large dose which fortunately caused vomiting. For days he was very ill, but recovered. But before this was complete, two English agents came with [skeleton] keys and tried to break into the room where we live with a little old lady. Failing, they went away and came later. The little old lady went outside to meet them and asked them what they wanted; they said they wanted to rent a room and wanted to go inside and see her rooms. She refused, saying she had no rooms to rent, and had never had in her life. She did not understand English, and said the men were foreigners and spoke a foreign language which she could not understand. But both had on high military boots and coats.
Then our wanderings started again and continue to this day. We work very hard during the day, trying to build something which will remain in Germany, and at night we go where we can.... We are no longer bothered by the German police, who know all about us, but the British spies make our lives a hell.
Smedley noted that the handgun given to her for protection by their mutual friend Josephine Bennett at the time she left New York for Germany was a great comfort to her.
To add to Smedley's mood of despondency, the news about the Indian independence movement in the United States was not encouraging.
78 Agnes Smedley
Without her, the Friends of Freedom for India had gone rapidly downhill, and it collapsed in 1922. According to Baldwin and Das, infighting among the Indians and Ghose's incompetence had succeeded in alienating the organization's key American backers, such as Robert Morss Lovett and Margaret Sanger. To Das, the loss of Smedley as a bridge between the two cultures was irreparable.
On June 1, 1922, Smedley wrote to Florence that she was near nervous collapse and completely exhausted; she said she had recently spent two weeks in a sanitorium in Mecklenberg. The same letter also carried the seeds of a new humiliation: it was the first in a long series of requests for money to pay mounting medical expenses. To assuage her guilt, Smedley was sending Florence Indian saris which she hoped could be sold to repay the debt. She asked Florence not to tell anyone that her friend Taraknath Das was sending her money.
By the fall of 1922 she was feeling well enough to take a paying job »polishing« English at home for a commercial magazine, but her spirits continued to sink. On November 22 she wrote to Florence: »Germany is terribly depressing... I don't know when I have heard a person laugh a really joyous laugh. The only time they laugh is when they have beer before them, and then their laugh is heavy and deadly. I am weary of Germany, just as one wearies of suffering, dullness, and ugliness over a long period of time. Perhaps my weariness is due to prolonged illness or to—God Forbid—advancing age! I long for a rest in a fresh happy atmosphere.«
Behind her mood lay the disintegration of her »marriage.« As she explained to Florence on June 4, 1923, she and Chatto were miserable together and miserable apart:
I've married an artist, revolutionary in a dozen different ways, a man of truly »fine frenzy« , nervous as a cat, always moving, never at rest, indefatigable energy a hundred fold more than I ever had, a thin man with much hair, a tongue like a razor and a brain like hell on fire. What a couple. I'm consumed into ashes. And he's always raking up the ashes and setting them on fire again. Suspicious as hell of every man near me—and of all men or women from America. My nervous collapse quieted him much. I told him once when I was on the verge of unconsciousness: »Leave me in peace; leave me alone personally; if I can't have complete freedom I shall die before your eyes.« But he is ever now and then blazing up again. And he is always smouldering. I feel like a person living on the brink of a volcano crater. Yet it is awful to love a person who is a torture to you. And a fascinating person who loves you and won't hear of anything but your loving him and living right by his side through all eternity! We make a merry hell for each other, I assure you. He is rapidly growing grey, under my influence, I fear. And that tortures me.
Chatto, whether consciously or not, was making Smedley pay in guilt for undermining him politically by what he considered her previous »sexual exploits.« He was now openly ashamed of her. Their differences in class background heightened the tension. He was embarrassed to introduce Smedley, not only to his family but to upper-class friends of his family as well. A year or two later she gave a new friend, the Danish writer Karin Michaelis, this vivid account:
Once some well-known Indian men and women came to Berlin, and my husband was to go and meet them. This same night some American friends invited me to the theatre. My husband was angry because I was going out with these Americans—although he had the appointment with the Indians. In defiance, I went to the theatre. But I could not enjoy myself, I felt so miserable that I had not come to an agreement with my husband. Then 1 got up and left the theatre in the middle of the first act and decided to go to my husband and tell him I could not enjoy myself because of the difference of opinion between us. In happiness I rushed to that hotel where he was to meet the Indians. I went in through the doors and saw him in the midst of the Indians. I ran up to him, happy and smiling. But he was very much embarrassed and led me away and said: »You see, why have you come here? Do you not know that it makes my position impossible? I cannot introduce you to these people—they know my family. How then can I introduce you to them?« And I, stunned and shocked, asked, »Your family, but why should you not introduce me to people who know your family?« And he said, »Oh, it is impossible. You must go away.« And he took me to the door, and I went out on the street. I looked back and saw that all the Indians were staring after me. They thought I was some woman from the street, some prostitute or something...
Well, for hours I walked the streets of Berlin. Finally, I went home and lay in silence through the long night. I heard my husband come home and stand by my bed to see if I was asleep. Then, when he heard no sound he went to bed.
An American girlfriend was living with us at the time. I was unable to get up from bed the next day, and after my husband was gone she asked me why. I broke down and told her. In anger, she went to my husband and accused him. He came in the room, locked the door and began to ask me why I betrayed him to outsiders as I had done to this girlfriend. I told him I was so unhappy, so miserable, that I must tell my sorrow to someone. He accused me, he beat his own head, he accused me of all my past »sins.« In the end, to get peace, and because I was so sick that I feared another nervous attack, I said, »I am sorry to have mentioned the subject. Of course I should not have come to the hotel last night. You were right; you could not possibly have introduced me to those Indians. They were such beautiful women, in silk Indian costumes, and I was badly dressed; and I am of the working class. And you have a wife in England. I am sorry that I did not see clearly.«
And then he said, »Yes, now I hope you see your mistake and act differently in the future. Now the matter is settled.«
And so there was peace! But at what a price!
Later Chatto also compromised and seemed to come to terms with his conflicting feelings on these issues. Eventually family members, including his sister and nephew, stayed with the couple and addressed Agnes as »Auntie.«
Compounding such tensions were cultural differences. In the Eastern tradition, no traveler should be turned away. And since Chatto was seen as the intellectual patriarch of all the Indians in Europe, a steady stream of Indians, mostly male, visited their household expecting to find temporary food and lodging.* Hindu and Muslim religious festivals were often celebrated there, »until the very walls of our home seemed to be permeated with the odor of curry.« And of course the burden of cooking and cleaning fell on Smedley.
- * Now and then a student »straight off the boat« would strike a maternal chord in Smedley, and she would try to help him not make a fool of himself. In Battle Hymn of China (New York, 1943), she mentions a student who bought a straw hat with a bunch of grapes hanging down the side: »It looked like a turban, and only with difficulty could we induce him to cease wearing it.« Chatto for his part »would argue with [all visitors]— attacking Hindu caste prejudices and Muslim superstitions, eating beef in front of Hindus and pork in front of Muslims and showing contempt for those who looked primarily to England for culture and learning« (pp. 14-15).
Chatto's attitude toward money ensured that their personal comfort came last. He saw money merely as a means of working for the independence of his country. He never owned more than one suit of clothing, and Smedley was constantly darning, patching, and pressing it. Nor did he care what he ate. Twenty years later, in Battle Hymn of China, Smedley could see this indifference as a positive trait: »When he had money, he gave it to anyone in need, so that we were forever in debt. His attitude toward it had been formed by the great joint families of India and in particular by that caste of Brahmin teachers and scholars who gave their knowledge freely. Years later I found the same attitude among those intellectuals of China who also came from families in which the clan cared for the individual« (p. 14). But by 1923 Smedley was beginning to consider her place in Chatto's world as intolerable. She described the situation in a letter to Michaelis:
For three years... I have lived in silence, and I never said a word against him. I helped him. I borrowed money and supported both of us. And even then I washed our clothing, ironed them, scrubbed the floor, cooked and washed dishes. I did everything, from mending his clothes and washing them, to borrowing money and loading myself with debt for many years to come. In the meantime, he gave his services free to the Indians here, and I had to pay even for the postage. He searched for rooms for every businessman or student who came along, he helped them shop, he also did national work. He brought them home at mealtime, two or three extra ones day by day, and I had to sacrifice my food day after day because he wanted to entertain his guests. There were days when I did not have enough to eat because Indian hospitality demands that a man must be fed. But I had to cook for these men who were not idealists, who had never raised a hand to help free India. My life was given to India, but I had to cook for businessmen. And I would sit and listen to them talk about [how] »all European women are prostitutes.« Then from morning until late at night I answered doorbells and telephone bells [from] men who demanded that my husband pay them money— money which he had not taken, but which other Indians had taken and he agreed to pay it back because he said »the honor of India is at stake.« But I had to pay that money. »The honor of India« be damned! It came out of my body, and never did I have one second of rest and peace trying to do my housework and at the same time trying to make extra money writing. And hearing nothing but requests for money. And all day long my husband telephoned for the Indians, and these Indians came to our house to telephone [so] they [would] not have to pay. And month after month I had to meet telephone bills which ran up into the hundreds of marks, and often the telephone was cut off. That is the economic side of the question, only.
Smedley was also repulsed by feudal Indian customs, including the women who were their victims. As she wrote to Florence Lennon on August 25, 1924:
We are living with a Mohammedan man and his wife. It is her first year out of purdah. These innocent purdah ladies! She knows more of sex than the freest woman of America. And such miserable, intriguing habits! She listens at keyholes to what the men are saying in the other room, and seems to think I understand it. She, the innocent, has gonorrhea, carried to her by her dear husband from the brothel—the husband who believes women must live in purdah in order that they may be protected from the cruel world. And she thinks that gonorrhea is an ailment something like a cold on the lungs. We found out the trouble only after they moved in, and they moved in only because she is the sister of a very dear young man who is very close to our hearts. The old gent who gave her the disease is very religious and prays five times a day in good Muslim style. And he raves against the immorality of the West! The rest of the time he eats his opium and sits contemplating.
This all is a great experience for me. I would never have learned of it had I not lived through it. They leave, thank God, in five days.
As Smedley's emotional fury mounted, she became more introverted. In her letters to America in early 1923 she stopped discussing politics— a clear sign that something was seriously wrong in the life of this political woman. The shock of discovering the prejudices of »revolutionary« men was intensified because the most paralyzing daggers were thrust at her by her own »revolutionary« husband, Chatto. In anarchist fashion, she blamed an institution — in this case, the institution of marriage, which she saw as corrupted by the notion of »ownership.«
The only friends she was seeing in the spring of 1923 were Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and their German anarchist-syndicalist friends. As her physical collapses became more frequent and her dependence on sleeping powders grew, these friends became deeply concerned. At their urging, Smedley sought the help of a psychiatrist early in 1923. On May 8, she explained the situation to Florence:
You ask me why I don't »drop in at Vienna and have a consultation with Freud.« Why not advise me to drop into heaven and have tea with God? It is far from the possible, I assure you. Freud charges money; it also takes money to go to Vienna; and it requires a passport which I don't happen to have...
I am better now. About two weeks ago I had a fearful attack which laid me out for a week in a state of semi-consciousness. Since then I have started working again and seem to be submerging myself in work because I am getting better each day. But always around eleven o'clock in the morning and three or four in the afternoon I feel my throat begin to tighten and my head to swim. Yesterday, for the first day, I did not feel this. But today it is back again. As I wrote you, I have been going to a psychoanalyst [name unknown], a student of Freud's and a man of some note here in Germany. But he refused to touch my case save in certain spots regarding my personal life. I slept for the first time in months after going to him for a time. But he says he can't cure me, and there is no need of his deceiving me. He says he can only act as a prop now and then when I need him. So when I am very bad, I rush to him and we talk about things in general. He hypnotised me to take away a part of my misery, but the hypnosis has now worked itself away again... My psychoanalyst has tried to induce me to write a novel based upon some of my own experiences. But the idea was crushed out of me by an incident after I had written three chapters... He made a serious psychological blunder once which has driven me away from him for a month now, and I can't bring myself to return unless I am seriously ill...
Please write me. I am sorry to write a letter all about myself. But there is no one here in whom I have full confidence that tomorrow they will not take my misery and make a joke of it for every street corner, or at best, for drawing room gossip.
Smedley's withdrawal was so uncharacteristic that it surprised even Florence, who implied that perhaps she was overreacting to her personal situation. What Smedley had not made explicit to Florence was the fact that her analyst had tried to seduce her. Instead, on June 4, Smedley wrote:
Your letter dated May 20 came this morning. I have read it with interest. It is the most »grown up« letter you have ever written. Of course nothing you say in it offends me, as you seemed to think it would. I bristled at a sentence or two... [but] only because my Ego is very active, owing to long suffering, and because what you say is true. I still bristle, however, at your remarks on my obsession that my freedom is being forever limited. Perhaps I am oversensitive on that point. But surely you admit that the one thing people love to do is to boss it over another, to influence another, to assert their authority. And the male of the species, after a few billion years of bossing, finds it a part of him... I often think freedom is more valuable than happiness, except that the two are perhaps but synonyms. Believe me, I am not using my imagination in my present situation. The thing bore down upon me month by month, and no one was more surprised than I; and I fought a battle worth fighting. But I lost. And I'm sick. My nervous collapses come back at least twice a month, leaving me prostrate in bed for a week at a time. I'm taking high sun rays treatment as well as high-frequency electric treatment.
I gave up my psychoanalyst who was treating me. I don't care to say why, exactly. But he became too personal.
Now, with her distrust of men nearly total, Smedley launched a crusade to protect her friends against the institution of marriage. Breaking up marriages became a cause for the rest of her life. At the same time her suspicion of men led her to seek help almost exclusively from women.
During the summer of 1923, Smedley was saved temporarily by the generosity of an Indian nationalist she had first met in New York, Lila Singh, a woman of about fifty, wealthy by birth and marriage, and a veteran fighter for Indian independence and for women's rights and education. Passing through Berlin on her way to England in 1923, Singh was appalled by Smedley's condition and offered to give her enough money to spend two summer months away from Chatto in the Austrian Alps.
At about the same time Smedley wrote to Florence that Karin Michaelis had invited her for a visit to her home on an isolated island in Denmark:
I look forward to the island. It is isolated and we shall live alone, rowing, writing, and doing what we will. Karin herself is a much older woman than I. She is 53. Have you not heard of her? She is a well-known novelist, author of The Dangerous Age and many other books. For some unknown reason we two struck up a strange, interesting friendship while she was here. She is not old, for all her age. I have an idea that she wants me to come [so she can] get a lot of »copy« out of me about my life for a novel! Really!... One of her closest friends and advisers is Georg Brandes, and I shall meet the great man. Karin is a wise woman and a seemingly frivolous one. She talks rot, but she seems to dive down deep into all women. She looked me over and decided I should be one of her next victims in a book. And then she fastened on me like a leech. I was very tired and ill and couldn't be interesting. But she is wiser than she sounds, I assure you, and she knows what ails women... I have helped her break up her own married life right here in Berlin. She has now left the man. He is younger than she by far. He exploited her for her name and connections, and he used all her money. He was a rat. I don't care to use names.
Finally deciding that she was not ready to be used as source material for someone else's book, Smedley wrote to Michaelis on July 14, politely declining the invitation by asking for a raincheck. Instead she accepted Lila Singh's offer. She spent most of July in a shepherd's hut on a mountainside near the Bavarian village of Gerstruben. Although she found the dances, folk songs, and festivals there entertaining, neither these diversions nor the supposedly therapeutic Alpine sun put an end to her sleeplessness and terror at night. In early August she moved to Berchtesgarten, a small resort town near the site of Hitler's mountain retreat. She wrote to Florence on August 11:
Here in Bavaria, I am in the stronghold of reaction. At night I am often awakened by the military commands and the march of men (Monarchists) who are training at night in the forests and in the mountains. It is a gruesome feeling—this secret training of men to kill other men. And these men being trained are peasants and working-men—not the class we usually think of. In Saxony the same thing occurs; there at night the men who are under training are also working-men, but the leaders are Communists. And they are preparing to kill their kind also. Sometimes I see no difference between the two. What is this business everywhere—men preparing to murder their own kind for the sake of an idea? Not their own idea either, but that of men who use them as tools to set themselves in power. We only wait for the day when the two groups will start massacring each other. Both groups are bitterly opposed to passive resistance as a method; it isn't bloody or sadistic enough.
There is no need to send the money unless the sari is sold. I have decided definitely, anyway, not to go to Vienna because it is about ten times as expensive as Germany, and I haven't the money. I hope to be well enough by September or October to enter Berlin University in October and drown my troubles in work. I shall use the money from my sari for that instead of a psychoanalyst. Of course, if it is absolutely necessary, I must return to Berlin for a month or two. But I can't have everything. In Berlin there live two of the best living analysts, aside from Ranke and Freud (Dr. Abraham and Dr. Eitingon), and I shall try to get on the lists of one of them if absolutely necessary. I have a job in Berlin for the winter at four pounds (about twenty dollars) a month, and with a little writing for the Indian press I shall perhaps bring it up to 5 pounds. I shall just be able to live on this, and I plan to take an hour or two a day at the University. I tried to find work in Switzerland and go there, but the people whom I approached told me that foreigners could not draw salaries in Switzerland because of unemployment. So I have given up Switzerland.
In Berlin I am [going to get] a passport under my own name, and I am going to live alone. A friend is finding a room for me about an hour from the city. Chatto is in agreement with my plans. Faced with my total destruction or with a total separation, he said he would give up all claims on my attention, etc., and would give me perfect freedom in all things; he is not to make one single demand or personal request. Upon this condition I [shall] return to Berlin, go my own way, and no longer have his perpetual jealousy and suspicion to face. You must not think [that those things were] imagination on my part. I have faced not only death, but worse than that, insanity. And I am not completely well by any means. The least little thing sets me on edge for days even now, and weeks pass [when] I do not sleep without strong sleeping powders.
Her desperate letters to another old friend in New York, Ellen Kennan, brought more than words of comfort. In Munich Smedley joined Ellen Kennan, who had come to Germany to lend Agnes her moral support and visit her other old friend, Emma Goldman. The two women attended the Wagner Festspiele in Munich and then proceeded together to Berlin.
Upon returning to the capital in September, Smedley immediately ran into obstacles in her attempt to gain admission to the University of Berlin. She frantically wrote for transcripts from New York University and her schools in California and also contacted her lawyer, Gilbert Roe. The job she thought she had lined up turned out to be volunteer work, offering only a vague promise of future income. By this time Kennan had returned to New York. As Smedley's prospects evaporated, friends in America urged her to return. In response, she told them that Chatto was holding her by threatening to quit his work for Indian independence and come to America with her, swearing that he could not live without her. Fully aware that she would be miserable if she lived with him again, Smedley gave in to his pleas and in October moved back in with him. She told Florence that she had agreed to stay with Chatto only for another six months, and that if she failed to gain entrance to the university by spring, she was determined to return to the United States.
By this time Smedley's guilt about accepting money from friends was weighing her down. She wrote to Florence on October 8:
Please do this for me — do not send any money at all unless [the sari] has been sold. I shall refuse it and return it at once. I have decided never to accept another cent of money which I have not earned. I can't always feel like a worm as I do now because of the money I have received which does not belong to me. I am improved in health. But I am not enthusiastic about my life anymore. I shall never be again, I think. The only hope I have is to bury myself in work and go through life with a dead heart...
I am wasting my life and I know it, and yet there is no other way open to me. I am 31 years of age and still an ignorant, uncultured, undeveloped animal.
The disintegrating political situation of Weimar Germany brought more economic chaos. Smedley's desperation over finding enough money to survive, and her growing anxiety about death, were by no means idiosyncratic. Many artists and writers, such as Kathe Kollwitz, George Grosz, and Ernst Barlach, had similar feelings and captured in their art the misery of the working people of Germany as inflation continued to devour the weak. In an article published in the Nation on November 28, Smedley wrote:
The week has witnessed looting of many shops in various parts of the city, unrest in most cities throughout the country, and actual street fighting in many. Looting and rioting are regarded as so much grist to the mills of the Communists and the reactionaries alike. The Communists take advantage of it and preach their dogma; the monarchists do the same. They smile cynically when they read of the frightful increase in the cost of living and say, »It has not yet gone far enough. It must be worse still before the masses realize the mistake they have made in establishing a republic! We shall wait a bit longer.« But most of the townspeople are so weary, so destroyed by uncertainty and long years of nervous strain, that they do not care what happens. They are tired of it all.
By November, Smedley noted, inflation had soared until one dollar was worth 2.5 trillion marks, and the cost of a loaf of bread had risen from 900 million to 1,200 billion marks.
Smedley's earlier fears, voiced from Berchtesgarten, over the increasingly polarized political situation also intensified, and in a letter to Lennon on September 16, 1923, she predicted civil war, to be followed by a Fascist victory. Her predictions began to be realized in October, with the brutal suppression of Communist uprisings in the provinces of Saxony and Thuringia and in the city of Hamburg.
As the economic and political order in Germany crumbled around her, Smedley's letters to Florence became more preoccupied with death. Tucked inside a letter that arrived in October was a handwritten note that read: »I have collapsed once again.« On November 12, she described visiting the deathbed of Surendranath Karr, the Indian nationalist who had spread more vicious gossip about her than any other person in Berlin with the exception of Gupta himself. Confronted with death, she said, one could »forget political or temperamental differences.« Six days later she wrote to Florence: »I can never pass through the winter in Germany. If I remain here, I die.«